Impact of Fatigue in Veterinary Practice

Lori Massin Teller, DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline), CVJ, Texas A&M University

ArticleLast Updated November 20222 min read
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In the literature

Scharf VF, McPhetridge JB, Dickson R. Sleep patterns, fatigue, and working hours among veterinary house officers: a cross-sectional survey study. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2022;260(11):1377-1385. doi:10.2460/javma.21.05.0234

The Research …

The impact of sleep deprivation is a concern among healthcare professionals and has been extensively studied in human medicine, particularly in medical residents.1-3 Adults should sleep a minimum of 7 hours every night.4 

This study investigated the correlation between sleep patterns of veterinary residents and interns with perceptions of fatigue during working hours. Rotating interns and residents training in a variety of clinical specialties at AVMA-accredited small- and large-animal teaching hospitals were surveyed; 303 responses were received from participants at 9 institutions. Sleep patterns, working hours, and perceptions of fatigue were examined for potential targeted intervention to improve well-being.

The majority of respondents reported working 11 to 13 hours per day, 5 to 7 days per week. Emergency and critical care residents were more likely to work >14 hours per day. Most respondents were on call 8 to 14 days each month and reported adequate caseloads for professional development. Respondents slept an average 6 hours per night when working in the clinic and 7.5 hours per night when not working in the clinic. On-call duties interfered with perceived sleep quality in many respondents. Fatigue was reported to interfere with clinical judgment and technical skills; 40% of respondents reported loss of empathy.

Sleep supports cognitive health; this study indicates long working hours and sleep deprivation may impair professional training of interns and residents. Loss of empathy has been previously associated with burnout.5-7 Further studies are needed to determine the effects of sleep deprivation on mental health, as well as the increased risk for self-injury or medical errors that may impact patient care.

The Takeaways …

Key pearls to put into practice:

  • Healthy sleep patterns support learning new information, performing learned tasks, and making good decisions, thus allowing effective communication with pet owners and appropriate patient care.

  • Industry changes (eg, flexible scheduling, protected off-clinic days, increased technical support) in overnight patient care and distribution of on-call responsibilities should be considered to maximize opportunities for sleep and improvement in mental health, as well as to minimize likelihood of burnout.

  • Sleep habits developed during training may be sustained throughout the professional career, impacting long-term well-being, job performance, physical health, and patient care.